By: James Swain (www.jimswain.com)
I became friends with Bob and Cathy Smith, the founders of PAR, 15 years ago, when we were introduced by a mutual friend. At the time, I knew of their company’s terrific reputation, and that they were strong supporters of many charities in the Tampa Bay area. Recently, I had a chance to sit down with the Smiths and talk about the company’s origins, and what they believe the future holds for their business.
Question: What did you and Cathy do before starting PAR?
Bob Smith: I served as a staff psychologist at the James A. Haley Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Tampa, Florida, and was in private practice as a clinical psychologist from 1975 until 1986.
Cathy Smith: I worked at the VA Hospital for 10 years as a psychiatric nurse.
Question: I ran my own business for 20 years and know how challenging it can be. What compelled you to start PAR?
Bob Smith: I didn’t want to be in clinical practice forever, and yearned to do something on my own. Cathy and I thought of opening a cookware store like Williams-Sonoma, or some other type of business. PAR was more of an experiment.
Question: What was your first product?
Bob Smith: We released our first product in 1978. It was the scoring keys for supplemental scales of the MMPI. Today we sell approximately 400 products on our Web site and through our catalog.
Cathy Smith: We started out with $2,251 in capital. Initially, we ran the business on our kitchen table. Bob’s Uncle “Rip” used to come over to the house and help out.
Question: Do you still have the table?
Cathy Smith: Of course! We are very sentimental. The table is now in the break room of our distribution center. We also still have the Selectric typewriter we used to start the business.
Question: I’ve read that most people who become entrepreneurs are inspired by someone. Did you have an inspiration?
Bob Smith: My father ran his own CPA firm for many years. I’m sure that had an influence on my decision to go out on my own. I always wanted to create something of my own. I was also inspired by Tom Peter’s book, A Passion for Excellence. I still have the dog-eared copy of that book on my office bookshelf.
Question: It takes a strong marriage for a husband and wife to work together. You and Cathy seem extremely happy. How do you do it?
Bob Smith: Cathy and I are able to work together because we share a mutual respect for one another. We share similar values and are passionate about many of the same things.
Cathy Smith: Bob runs the business and the final decisions are his. Only one person is responsible in the end, and that’s Bob. That is the difference between leaders and bosses.
Question: Many small businesses don’t make it past 5 years. Did you ever think that PAR might not make it?
Bob Smith: For the first 8 years, Cathy and I took no compensation, and we reinvested everything we made into PAR. At one point in the early 1980s, we thought the business might not survive. We managed things very conservatively, which helped us survive during leaner times.
Question: PAR has grown a great deal since those early days. How large is the company now?
Bob Smith: We presently have 58 full-time employees.
Question: I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in your offices, and talk with your employees. They are a very happy group of people, and seem to genuinely enjoy working here. How do you accomplish that?
Bob Smith: We try to take very good care of our staff. For the most part, when people start working here, they want to stay, and we want them to stay. We have 24 employees who have been here over 10 years. We know that in order to expect our employees to take good care of our Customers, it is important for us to take good care of them.
Question: Which leads me to my next question. In order to succeed, a company must have a core philosophy. What is yours?
Bob Smith: We hire smart people who are very conscientious. We surround ourselves with people we want to be around. PAR employees are our extended family. You must invest up front, and find the right people to succeed.
Visit our blog Thursday, May 20th for the conclusion of the interview with PAR founders, Bob and Cathy Smith.